Russell Banks never does take the reader quite to the moment of the explosion of the Hindenburg.
But that image - haunting, ominous, and looming – weaves through the pages of The Reserve to suggest what is one of its overarching themes… loss of innocence - as it applies to the novel’s individual characters as well as within the historical context of the story.
In a pre-World War II setting, with America in the grip of the Great Depression, the geographical and historical context of The Reserve adds considerable depth and richness to a book that has many of the hallmark traits of the pot-boiling page-turner. So movie-ready I could smell the popcorn!
Action plays out against the backdrop of pristine upstate New York at a storybook retreat called The Reserve, a secluded, ritzy resort, inhabited by The Beautiful People - people of privilege.
It is as though they are living in suspension, occupying a mist-filled dream life before the nightmare begins. Banks’ lush depiction of a sequestered, complacent lifestyle of entitlement forms a sharp and telling contrast with the understated but inevitable horrors of the war to come.
Stepping from this lovely setting comes the book’s equally lovely heroine, the glamorous, mysterious, and perhaps seriously unstable heiress, Vanessa Cole, who stays at the Reserve with her parents, wreaking havoc on those hapless souls who come under her spell. [I admit, I also found myself wicked in love with her until she turned into a bit of a whackbar!]
Working within classic mystery genre tradition, Banks skillfully manipulates multiple narrative stances, keeping us guessing about the reliability of each of the narrators’ visions, especially that of Vanessa, who vacillates from scheming siren to vulnerable waif with alarming speed.
Ultimately unable to resist her charms – or to discern the degree of validity in the stories she spins - is Jordan Groves, the swashbuckling, notoriously independent artist and pilot that Banks has [my theory] modeled on real life artist Rockwell Kent.
Into this mix, pour a working class character trying to recover from the sudden death of his young wife, a possible case of sexual abuse, an ever intensifying double love affair, and a murder cover-up. Then set them smack down into the romantic twilight haze of America’s upper crust in the mid-thirties. You have the building blocks of a story that feels destined for Hollywood.
[Whether that is a compliment or not will depend on the reader’s perspective.]
All the big themes are here. Fidelity to one’s spouse and country, mental and emotional instability, the effects of social constraints on the individual, and difficulties of self-awareness, the absolute unending beauty of an impartial natural landscape, bearing mute witness to the flaws of humans.
If it all sounds too plot-packed and grandiose for a simple summer read that has a hint of dime store romance hanging about it…well, maybe it is.
But Banks has also laced this barn-burner of a novel with enough artistry to satisfy – or at least to appease – the reader who is looking for more than a conventional escapist plot with slapdash action.
One of the novel’s most interesting artifices is in Bank’s use of inter-chapters, fast-forwards which he alternates with the time-bound linear plot.
The inter-chapters provide tantalizing, if hazy, glimpses into events that will happen after the main timeline of the book has ended.
As The Reserve’s crystal ball, their futuristic setting makes these inter-chapters initially puzzling. For the impatient reader, perhaps even maddeningly so. Readers simply have to trust Banks to eventually bring us into their sharper focus. At first I was confused by them, clueless as to what was happening or even who the characters were. But ultimately, they turned out to be a kind of afterword, resolving many things in the book that would have otherwise been left unanswered.
There is plenty in The Reserve to please all types of readers. Difficult to categorize, it may be read as a love story, murder mystery, historical sketch, or an artfully rendered literary novel.
Maybe all of the above.
I rate The Reserve a solid and splashy 3.5 Puddles© out of a possible 5!
To read an excerpt, click → HERE.
“Reserve” your own copy → HERE.